Oh my god. Oh my god. Just where do I begin?
When the Modern Library first came out with their list, I was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota. I punched it up on line, and looked it over, along with my friend John Hall. "I think I'm going to read all of these books." John looked at me indulgently and said, "Don't start with Ulysses."
I spent about two happy years wandering my way through the list. Sometimes I found amazing treasures that were a joy to read. (Hi, William Styron!) And sometimes I found tortuous ordeals that were a joy to whine about afterwards. (I'm sorry, Sweet Bambi, please don't tell your Uncle Saul.) Strangers started emailing me to share their views, and I had some wonderful discussions. But many of them had one warning for me... "Watch out for Ulysses; it isn't readable." And there was another warning... "You had better not trash Ulysses."
I'd also read many criticisms of the list itself... and agreed with most of them. One of the common ones: "Ulysses was rated the greatest novel of all time, and most of the people who voted it had never read it ." I became increasingly curious... what was it about this book that nobody seemed to finish, everyone seemed to hate, and was universally acknowledged to be the Greatest Novel of All Time?
I did eventually meet someone who had actually finished Ulysses. Pat was an acquaintance from Minneapolis, with whom I had my first real conversation only after I'd moved to Iowa. When I mentioned that I was about to start Ulysses, he spoke fondly of it. He suggested that I first read Homer's Odyssey, and that I don't forget that Ulysses is supposed to be a comedy. At this point in my life, Laurel and I were visiting Minneapolis once a month. I fantasized about visiting Pat again next month, after I'd finished the book.
"Boy, Pat. That Ulysses was surely a good book," I would say.
"Why, Douglas. I agree with you of course. You are so much cooler than all the people who are unable to even finish it."
"Well, Pat. I wouldn't use the word 'cooler.' But you and I are certainly smarter than they are. The secret, in my opinion, is to remember that it is supposed to be a comedy."
"The poor bastards who forget," he would respond, thinking, "That Doug Shaw fellow has such good taste."
Since then, I've spoken to many people about Ulysses. Many have told me that this is a Great Novel, and if I didn't say good things about it, then I was an ignoramus. My response to this warning is always, "Have you read the novel?" And the answer is always, "Well no... but..." The people I've met who have actually read the thing have told me that it is quite a challenging book, and that I may not enjoy it, and that is perfectly understandable. If you are going to email me, complaining about my review, I warn you that my first question will be "Have you read the novel?" And if you haven't read it, start to finish, my response will be "Well I have. I hated it. And you may shut up until you have finished it."
I started Ulysses on a nice October day, on my walk to work. I had to wade through a huge preface, talking about how this scholarly edition fixed all these punctuation marks, and had added an occasional sentence of traditionally deleted text.
Oh my god. I'm finally writing this. Oh my god. It hurts to relive. Wait a minute... I have to pull myself together. The pain is starting again.
Okay.. I can go on now. I'm sorry.
I stopped walking to work as a result of this book. I stopped enjoying the act of reading. I stopped enjoying the very fact of my existence, knowing that the same God who created me also created James Joyce and this pile of pages. One day, at about page 75, I looked to find the page number of the end, so I could pass the reading time by calculating what percentage of the book I had read so far. So I wouldn't have to look it up again, I decided to write "644" on the inside front cover. I turned to said inside front cover only to find "644" already written there, in my handwriting.
Laurel, our friends Jeff and Kristie, and some of their friends were out at a bar, and Jeff asked how the book was going. Without pausing, I said, "It is like having a rib ripped out of my body, being beaten with it, raped with it, and then being forced to eat it." The table went silent. My reaction had been unexpected by all, including me. I paused and said, "I'm sorry I said that, but I stand by the statement."
I would read the book while proctoring exams, although I couldn't last for the whole hour. After two pages of Chapter two, I would have to put it aside for two or three days, until I had regained the capacity to feel joy. Sometimes I would survive by thinking about this review, and how I was going to create this graphic: And then there would be this guide:
Somewhere in Part II, when I was completely lost, I noticed that each individual page read like one of my ex-fiancee's poems. "Self," thought I, "how can you dislike Ulysses, when you love Jennifer's poetry?" I thought about this for a while, and continued reading. "Self," answered I, "Jennifer's poems do not go on for 644 pages, and at least seem to be about something. This book sucks."
Somewhere else, I was reminded of parts of Einstein on the Beach, an Opera by the composer Philip Glass. "Self," thought I, "how can you dislike Ulysses, when you like Einstein on the Beach so much?" I thought about this for a while, and continued reading. "Self," answered I, "you like Einstein on the Beach because it is good, and you dislike Ulysses because it is painful and awful to read. This book sucks."
Later still, I ran into Pat during a visit to Minneapolis.
How's Ulysses going?
It's tough, and I'm not enjoying it all that much, but it's getting better.
(a "thought balloon" appears over Douglas's head, reading tough means incomprehensible not enjoying means hating getting better means that chapter 15 is not as hateful as chapters 1 through 14 but i want Pat to like me but why should i i i lie since i'm just going to wind up putting it in the review anyway and as smart and interesting as Pat is my i i beard is much better than his ever gets so really why should i lie pie in the sky poke in the eye )
So, where are you now?
(instantly) Page 352 (Ghost of Bob Dorough notes 352/644 is approximately 54.65838509%)
No, I meant what is happening now?
Oh - The book has just shifted to "play" format. Much easier to read.
No, I meant what is happening in regards to the plot?
(Douglas's's's face blushes red and hot. The smoke alarms go off at the smoke coming from his ears. Four score and seven firemenwomenchildren put out the fire, clean up the soot, wash the walls, vacuum the carpet, change the litter box, do the dishes, make the bed, plow the fields, split the infinitives)
(laughs) I know that's kind of a hard question. Have you gotten to the part yet where Bloom masturbates?
(whispers) Gertie! Right before the play part he was going on about a girl named Gertie. Mention Gertie. If Bloom masturbated over Gertie then it seems like you know what was going on, and if not, it looks like you were answering the previous question. Gertie, you portly bearded phony phakey Ph.D.ded phool!
Right after he saw Gertie
(whispers) at the beach
at the beach.
Ah yes, that certainly was a funny part, yes?
Oh god, I'm sorry for lapsing into that. I promised myself I wouldn't do that. The only thing worse than James Joyce writing like James Joyce is other people trying to write like James Joyce. And I failed. I was coherent. I can't not be.
Dear lord, make the pain stop long enough for me to finish this review.
At some point, I was wandering the Web and came upon a review of Ulysses, where it was mentioned that the whole novel took place over one day. Oh. News to me.
I was at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in Ann Arbor, and was giving a sample educational seminar in a roomful of professional educational consultants. At one point, I wanted to do a sample group activity with them, and had to prepare a question for discussion that would work with educators of different specializations and backgrounds. I had them discuss whether a book such as Ulysses could be considered a "Great Novel" if everybody who reads it, hates it. (That was the premise. As I've stated above, I'm aware that there are people who liked it.) The question began by talking about how much difficulty I was having with the novel, included a sample paragraph, and then mentioned again how much I disliked it. The group discussed the question, and came to the conclusion that such a novel can still be considered "great."
As they were returning to their seats, I addressed the group, saying something like, "See? We have four people of different research backgrounds, who took a question from still a different field, and they were able to discuss this question and come to a conclusion" and then in a softer voice "albeit the wrong one." Ha ha, and then we discussed the group dynamics.
During the feedback session, that comment was addressed. How I told students to have an open discussion, and then afterwards, I discounted everything they said. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I had been standing in a room full of people who are experts on group-dynamics and education, and did the worst possible thing. I'd thought it was funny at the time. It wasn't one of my best moments.
Ulysses. Ulysses. If I had wanted to be made to feel like an idiot, I would have just gone back to graduate school.
I was in Yahoo Chat and met a fellow who had read it five times. He said that he understood my hostility, that it didn't mean anything about me as a person, and I would probably enjoy the novel more my second time around. My second time around. Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho and ho.
The visions of went away about halfway through chapter 15. Horrors, I started to like it. Well, that is too strong. I started not to hate certain parts. I realized that this novel should be read the way you watch an episode of Monty Python or the Monkees. (Pat's ghost : "Remember that it is supposed to be a comedy.") You know how in an episode of the Monkees, Davy would question Peter and Peter would say, "What is this, a trial?" and then suddenly they would be in a courtroom with Mike as the judge and Mickey as the D.A.? You know how in an episode of Monty Python, Graham Chapman would question Terry Jones and Terry would say, "What is this, a trial?" and then suddenly they would be in a courtroom with Eric Idle as the judge and John Cleese as the D.A.? Well, Ulysses has that kind of logic to it. At least sometimes. And when I read it that way, it became tolerable, almost pleasant. Until Chapter 16.
Did you like Chapter 17?
I did at first, but the conceit wore thin and became tedious again. But at least I knew the end was in sight.
I'm sorry that this review is so long, rambling, and at times incoherent. But it could be worse. You could be reading Ulysses.
Okay, you want to know when I was really embarrassed? The first time I bought a Playboy magazine. I went to the grocery store, and left almost immediately, because I lost my nerve. I drove to a different one, and tried again and failed. Finally, I got a whole bunch of other things, slipped in the Playboy, and bought it. "This is the most embarrassing thing in the world to buy," thought I.
Okay, you want to know when I was really, really embarrassed? The first time I bought condoms. I went to the pharmacy, and left almost immediately, because I lost my nerve. I drove to a different one, and tried again and failed. Finally, I got a whole bunch of other things, slipped in the condoms, and bought it. "This is the most embarrassing thing in the world to buy," thought I. "Worse than the Playboy."
Okay, you want to know when I was really, really, really embarrassed? The time (the only time, thank you) I bought a home pregnancy test. This is hard for me to write. Good thing you are the only person who will ever read it. I went to the pharmacy, and was embarrassed, but old enough not to leave. I got a whole bunch of other things, and then got IT, and bought it. "This is the most embarrassing thing in the world to buy," thought I. "Worse than the Playboy and the condoms," thought I as I walked home, about five minutes before running into someone I knew who wanted to have a long conversation in the sidewalk, with me holding a bag and praying that he wouldn't ask me what was in it.
Okay, you want to know when I was really, really, really, really embarrassed? The time (the only time, thank you) I bought Cliff's notes. I walked to the University of Northern Iowa bookstore. I almost turned around and left. Blushing, I walked up and down every aisle, making sure no students or other professors were there. An ex-student works as a cashier; I made sure she wasn't on duty. I almost walked out, losing my nerve. But I steeled myself, got a whole bunch of other things, and bought the Cliff's notes to Ulysses. "This is the most embarrassing thing in the world to buy," thought this college professor. And I was right. Not until 70 years from now when I'm buying adult-diapers... no, this was worse.
The Cliff's notes helped a bit. I found out that the reason it seemed the perspective kept changing was because there were two main characters, and the perspective was flipping back and forth between them. No, I hadn't figured that out yet. Yes, I am stupid. Laurel leafed through the notes and said, "This isn't the book you described; stuff happened." I said, "This is like a coherent description of a long incoherent dream." Actually I didn't say that. I don't remember what I said.
I was on the Internet and found a web site that reviewed the Top 100 Novels of All Time. And it wasn't me; it was some right-wing guy. He'd read and reviewed all 100, beating me to the punch. I turned to his Ulysses review. He confessed that he'd only read the first sixth of the book but that was enough to get what it was like. He was wrong. You have to read the whole thing to appreciate the experience. (And it still means that nobody has read and reviewed all 100 yet... I'm still in the running!)
Okay. Here's the quick version of my review: Ulysses was clearly written by a clever guy. I was not smart enough to understand it. I had a horrible time reading it, and will never read it again. Note that I did not say it wasn't "great." Even a caveman can walk through a huge factory and see that some talent went into the making of it. Let someone smarter than I am decide whether it is "great." But please, please, make sure that person has actually read every single word.
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